William Cowden: 'I died three times because of my racing accident, but if I could get back on a bike, I would... I miss it'
Belfast's William Cowden had a promising future in road racing when a horror crash brought it to an abrupt end, and almost killed him. But, he tells Stephanie Bell, the sport remains his passion
Almost four years on from his tragic high-speed motorbike crash, William Cowden is still recovering from his catastrophic injuries. The 34-year-old had just started to make his mark in motorbike racing in 2014 with his first major win at the Cookstown 100 when, a few months later, he came off his bike in a horror smash at the Killalane Road Races.
He had made quite a number of podiums throughout the year and was tipped to take first place in the 125cc event at Killalane that September when tragedy struck during the race.
William's bike had hit around 130mph when it suddenly seized, throwing him off.
The crash left him fighting for his life with a crushed spine.
He had to have emergency surgery but doctors were forced to stop the operation when he "died" three times on the table.
Two of his ribs and many of the bones in his back were so badly broken they had to be removed, and he now lives with a steel rod in his spine and a steel cage where his ribs were taken out.
He spent several weeks in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, before being transferred to the Musgrave Park facility in Belfast where he spent another two months recovering.
When he was eventually allowed home in January 2015, he had to face the future knowing he would never walk again, and that his racing days were over.
Today, while he depends on his parents who have built an extension onto their Belfast home for their son, he does have his own home which he hopes one day to be well enough to live in again.
And, while he tries to stay positive, he still laments the loss of his racing career. Yet William knows from bitter experience that he is one of the lucky ones.
His family has suffered unimaginably through motorbike racing. He lost his best friend, Wayne Hamilton (20), from Portadown, while they were both taking part in the same race in the Isle of Man Grand Prix in 2011.
Both of his sisters also lost their partners to racing. Janet (36) was dating veteran racer Paul Shoesmith from Stockport when he died from horrifying injuries after a tyre exploded during a 190mph TT race in 2016.
Younger sister Angela (31) lost her partner Bruce Moles (20) from Hillsborough who died after his bike crashed into a ditch at the Race of the South in Co Westmeath in 2013, the year before William's crash.
Today, as William thinks of the friends he has lost, he counts himself lucky to be alive.
He says: "I just loved racing, Bruce loved it and Paul loved it, and you never think it is going to be you.
"Even now, after everything that has happened, if I could get back on a bike, I would. I always knew the risks so I can't be completely annoyed at what has happened to me.
"I miss it and if I could I'd be back racing.
"Losing Wayne was tough. We spent all our time together outside of racing and had travelled to the Isle of Man races together. It was really strange. We were both in the same race and the night before it we had been talking about what we would do if one of us crashed.
"News had just come through of the death of Adrian McFarland from Plumbridge during a crash in the Czech Republic and we were talking about it.
"A lot of Irish racers were not going out to race because of it and we both said we would continue with the race if something happened. We said we would go on in memory of our friend because that's what we were there to do.
"And it happened. I came round the corner and I saw my friend lying on the side of the road. I didn't know how bad he was. I just had to tell myself he was going to be okay. There is nothing you can do.
"My dad told me when the race was over. It really floored me. It was so weird we had talked about it the night before."
Racing was in William's blood. His father, also called William, enjoyed a short racing career but, well aware of the risks, gave it up when his children came along.
William's mum Heather was expecting him when his dad stopped racing. He continued to be a fan and brought his son to the races.
William started to race in his late teens and was an up and coming road racing star when his accident happened.
He says: "I had been racing 12 years and was doing really well. I had won my first road race at the Cookstown 100 at the start of 2014. It was my first competitive win. I did every road race that year and had a lot of podiums. My racing career was everything to me and it was going well and I was happy.
"I have no memory of even going to Killalane that weekend. I have a vague memory of helping a friend on the Saturday whose bike wasn't working and we tried to fix it.
"My dad told me I was in pole position for winning my race on the Sunday.
"Apparently my bike seized. I was doing about 120 or 130mph at the time. Very few people saw it happen as it was not at a spot where there are a lot of spectators."
The late Dr John Hinds was first on the scene and no doubt saved William's life as he did with many racers over the years.
Dr Hinds, who worked as an intensive care consultant and anaesthetist at Craigavon Hospital, was one of road racing's famous travelling medics. He started a campaign for an air ambulance for Northern Ireland the month before he was killed while riding during a practice at Skerries 100 races in July 2015. Fundraising for an air ambulance in his memory saw his wish fulfilled after his death.
Following his accident, Dr Hinds was taken to Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, where William was brought following his crash and admitted straight to intensive care.
William recalls: "Dr John Hinds was with me very quickly and got me sedated.
"When I got to Beaumont Hospital, at first they thought I had very serious head injuries but it was my spine.
"Part of my spine is now gone. The bones were so badly broken they couldn't fix them and they had to take them out.
"I had to have an operation very soon after the crash and they told me I died three times on the operating table and they had to stop.
"A few days later they operated again to finish it. I also had two ribs taken out and a metal cage put in above my ribs and metal work in my spine. I will never walk again."
William suffers frequent spasms which doctors are currently trying to control with medication.
The spasms have prevented him from living alone which he one day hopes to be able to do.
He says: "I will always need care but I have my own house and hope that one day down the line I will get it adapted so that I can live there.
"I need my parents because of the spasms. I'm on a lot of medication for the spasms but when they happen I can't really do anything.
"Dad built an extension with a wet room onto their house for me."
Putting his days in is now his biggest challenge but he is not sitting around feeling sorry for himself. Before his accident, racing consumed him but he also worked with his dad as a joiner.
To try and fill his time now, he attends a day care centre twice a week where he is learning computer skills, and he also swims one day a week.
"I have to stay positive. I am restricted doing things but I'm trying and I've had great help from my parents and my sisters, and a local social worker who has been brilliant," he explains.
"It is hard putting the time in and I need to get out of the house and do something. Getting better is taking time.
"It is a long, slow process and my plan is to keep building myself up and maybe in a few years I will be able to live on my own again.
"I still go to the races. A year after my accident I was back at the same track. I get to see my friends at the races and my favourite track is Dundrod and the Ulster Grand Prix.
"It is hard not being able to race. I miss it and, even after everything that has happened, if I could get back on a bike, I would."